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Citizen Journalists Find Spouses of Incumbents Paid with Campaign Cash

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Some 19 current members of the House of Representatives pay their spouses out of their campaign war chests, totaling more than $636,000 in the current election cycle, a study by citizen journalists working with the Sunlight Foundation has found. Phase one of the "Is Congress A Family Business?" investigation is now complete.

Using an innovative tool developed by Sunlight Labs, about 40 volunteers investigated anywhere from one to as many as 155 members, uncovering those who, by hiring their spouses to work for their campaign, allow special interest cash to enter their family budgets.

While the federal nepotism statute prohibits members of Congress from hiring spouses to work in their Washington or district offices, there is no law preventing members from hiring family members to work for their campaign committees, provided they render bona fide services to the campaign at fair market value.

In the current election cycle, the spouse paid the most directly from campaign funds was Patricia McKeon, the wife of Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. From January 1, 2005, through June 2006, she has been paid $78,287--which works out to an annual salary of a little more than $52,000 a year. According to the campaign, Ms. McKeon serves as the treasurer. Rep. McKeon's 2005 financial disclosure form indicates that his campaign was his wife’s sole source of earned income.

Rep. Richard Pombo's wife Annette has been paid $52,950 through June 2006 by the seven-term Republican's reelection effort. When contacted by the Sunlight Foundation about the payments, a campaign spokesperson explained that Annette Pombo is not an employee of the campaign, but rather is paid fees for consulting.

Citizen researchers also found that Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., has hired his wife, Janet, to be his campaign manager, paying her $41,792 over the study period. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., gave his wife Mary Anne the same title and paid her $28,960.

The investigative tool allowed users to easily access members’ biographical information—including spouse names—compiled by the nonpartisan VoteSmart.org. They could then look up campaign expenditure information from the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site, OpenSecrets.org, to see if an individual with that name was receiving payments from the campaign. Researchers recorded the information at the Sunlight Foundation’s site.

Citizen journalists investigated all 435 members of the House of Representatives in less than 48 hours; Sunlight Foundation researchers verified the information and contacted campaigns to confirm the identity of the individuals.

Some campaigns did not respond to queries; in those cases, personal financial disclosures of members were consulted to verify the information.

Future projects will track spouses who are paid indirectly by campaigns—that is, they work for firms that in turn work for a campaign—and spouses who work for firms that receive government contracts and grants.

Of the 19 current House members who employ their spouses on their campaigns, two are not seeking reelection in 2006. The campaign of Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who on Sept. 13, 2006, pled guilty to multiple crimes stemming from the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, paid his wife Elizabeth $25,598 through June 2006. More recent filings by the campaign with the FEC show that she continued to receive payments even after her husband’s guilty plea: she received two payments of $851 on Sept. 15 and Sept. 30. According to the 2005 financial disclosure form filed by Rep. Ney, his campaign is his wife’s sole source of earned income.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., announced on March 17, 2006, that he would not seek reelection. But even though his campaign is no longer geared to winning an election, it’s not entirely inactive: it continues to hold fundraising and other events, it makes contributions to other Republican candidates, and it still files reports with the FEC.

The campaign’s last remaining paid employee is Boehlert’s spouse, Marianne Boehlert, who first became a paid employee of the campaign in 2002, according to Sam Marchio, the communications director for Boehlert’s office. “She was an integral part of the team,” he said, adding that she was involved in fundraising, scheduling events and managing volunteers. “She really kept the trains running on time,” he said.

The campaign has paid Ms. Boehlert $35,430 through June 30, 2006; a review of more recent FEC records filed by the campaign show that she has remained on the payroll through September.

“Just because he’s not running for reelection doesn’t mean there’s no activity,” Marchio said, adding that there’s “still a lot of work to be done closing down a campaign office.”